Human Rights First Urges Obama Administration to Lead on Iraqi Refugees
WASHINGTON - A leading human rights advocacy group is calling on President-elect
Obama to fulfill his campaign's commitment to confront the Iraqi
refugee crisis by strengthening oversight and effectiveness of refugee
assistance, ensuring that the Iraqi government refrains from pressuring
refugees to return home before they can do so in safety, and placing a
coordinator for Iraqi refuges in the White House.
Human Rights First today released a comprehensive blueprint - How to Confront the Iraqi Refugee Crisis
- which puts forward a strategy for the incoming Obama administration
to address the Iraqi refugee crisis as part of its pledge to withdraw
from Iraq. Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, millions of Iraqis have
fled their homes. Today an estimated 750,000 to 2 million Iraqi
refugees live in unstable situations in urban centers in the Middle
"President-elect Obama has said that we must be as careful getting
out of Iraq as we were careless getting in," says Elisa Massimino,
Executive Director and CEO of Human Rights First. "There will be no
responsible withdrawal unless the new administration helps secure a
future for hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees - by improving their
situation in Syria and Jordan, resettling the most vulnerable, and
ensuring that refugee returns to Iraq are voluntary."
Chief among Human Rights First's recommendations is the proposal
that the President-elect place an Iraqi refugee coordinator in the
White House, responsible for ensuring that appropriate policy toward
Iraqi refugees is integrated into U.S. strategic and operational plans
in Iraq. The position was first proposed by Senator Edward Kennedy and
Vice President-elect Joseph Biden.
The blueprint also urges the U.S. government to set "refugee
benchmarks" for the Iraqi government and for U.S. assistance to shift
from the government to NGOs if those benchmarks are not met. The
benchmarks would require the Iraqi government to acknowledge that
return of internally displaced people (IDPs) and refugees should be
voluntary and to discuss more flexible visa policies for refugees with
its neighbors. Human Rights First also proposes that the new
administration take steps to improve the effectiveness of humanitarian
aid to the region, and announce a two-year campaign to resettle 60,000
of the most vulnerable Iraqi refugees.
Additional recommendations include:
- Fulfill the campaign commitment over several years to provide $2
billion in aid for Iraqi refugees in neighboring countries and for
displaced Iraqis inside Iraq, bilaterally or through UN appeals;
- Keep diplomatic channels with Syria open to ensure that
necessary aid reaches Iraqi refugees, contingent on Syria's continued
willingness to work with international NGOs, to allow audits, and to
- Lead an international effort to encourage other countries to
resettle 25,000 refugees within two years. Combined with a U.S.
commitment to resettle 60,000, this would ensure resettlement for all
85,000 Iraqi refugees whom the UNHCR has identified as extremely
- Increase funding to assist refugees after they have arrived in the United States.
In the past year, the Iraqi government has started a media campaign
promoting refugee return and has organized return flights for refugees.
Amelia Templeton, refugee policy analyst for Human Rights First,
discussed the implications of the campaign with refugee families in
Syria on a recent trip to the region in October.
"Security has improved in Iraq today," says Templeton "but many
refugees fear what might happen tomorrow. They're looking for some
measure of political stability."
Templeton also noted that many refugees view the current return
campaign as propaganda. "The government of Iraq should focus on
providing humanitarian aid and accurate information to refugees and the
internally displaced," says Templeton.
Human Rights First reports that many refugee families in Syria and
Jordan are coping with impoverishment, family separation, untreated
trauma, lack of opportunity, discrimination, and domestic violence.
"If the new administration does not make it a priority to address
these problems, the refugee crisis will exacerbate tensions in the
Middle East and pose security risks," says Elisa Massimino, Executive
Director of Human Rights First. "The United States is morally
responsible for helping Iraqi refugees reestablish safe, secure lives.
Doing so is also clearly in America's strategic interest."
How to Confront the Iraqi Refugee Crisis
is the seventh in a series of strategy papers released by Human Rights
First to guide the next administration in restoring American leadership
in human rights in critical spheres. The first paper in the series, How to Close Guantanamo, was released this August, the second, How to End Torture and Cruel Treatment, was released in October, the third, How to End Impunity for Private Security and Other Contractors, was released in November, the fourth, fifth and sixth How to Repair the U.S. Asylum System, How to Promote Human Rights in Russia, and How to Stop Arms to Sudanwere released earlier this month.